Inerrancy, Historicity, Maximalism and Minimalism

If one wishes to demonstrate that the Bible does not merely contain some information that is likely to be accurate and of historical value, but that it is inerrant, then one needs to demonstrate not merely that this or that event happened, but they all happened largely as described in the Bible. And that is a daunting task, because it would require not merely expertise about all the relevant Biblical claims, but also information from other historical sources. It is meaningless to discuss an Exodus purported to occur in the Ramessid period, for instance, if we have a significant number of writings from the Egypt of that era, produced not simply under the auspices of Pharaoh but by more ordinary individuals, which cover the sweep of that era and give no indication of being affected by severe personal or communal tragedy.

When it comes to the purported conquest of Canaan, individuals like Bryant Wood have strenuously tried to relocate Ai and redate the fall of Jericho’s walls. But even if we grant him the benefit of the doubt, can we find a period of about 100 years during which all the cities said to have been destroyed in the Book of Joshua were in fact destroyed in something like the way that book claims they were?

If not, then historicity is still a possibility – hypothetically speaking, there may have been multiple waves of invasion over multiple generations, for instance. But inerrancy in any meaningful sense is not.

My primary field is New Testament, and so I invite readers with expertise in the Hebrew Bible, archaeology, and the Ancient Near East to discuss the question: Is there any single period of approximately a century during which we find all the relevant cities mentioned in Joshua to have been destroyed in something like the way the Book of Joshua indicates?

  • Bradley

    Hi James, just found your blog via another. Been looking around for a few minutes. Sorry to kind of post off topic, but I’m a little confused. No doubt my confusion stems from being unfamilier with your writings, but all I’ve seen so far is what you don’t believe is true about the Bible or Christianity. Can you give me the short list and tell me jut what you do believe is true about the Bible?

  • Sze Zeng

    Hi Dr. MgGrath,Like yourself, I’m a believer. Yet after doing my amateurish finding into the ‘Joshua Conquest’, I think it is not as precisely as how the Old Testament describes it.But that doesn’t in anyway made me suspicious that God doesn’t exist or the reliability of the Bible as the best narrative about the affairs of the world.My own brief findings are found here, if it interests you:

  • Sze Zeng

    Sorry for the typo. It should be “Mcgrath”.

  • Jim

    the answer to your final question is painfully simple. no.

  • Chris

    The best candidate, IMO, is the Amarna period. But that still requires that the story of Joshua be a substantially fictionalized version of the events of that period.

  • Mike K

    James, maybe the word inerrancy should be dropped, but do you think one could still have a high view of divine inspiration and authority can be maintained even if the Bible clearly is not “historical” or “scientific” in the modern sense of the term? Though I’m still not sure what the “inspired” book of Joshua can teach us (anything good at least), but maybe some canonical critics can help me out?

  • John Anderson

    On the issue of the emergence of ancient Israel, I am inclined to follow the new trend in ethnicity studies put forward primarily by Liz Bloch-Smith (her JBL article a fear years back) and Ann Killebrew (her Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity published by SBL). Killebrews conclusion resonates the most with me: ancient Israel was a “mixed-multitude” (her words) that consisted of indigenous Canaanites, shasu, apiru, some semitic refugees from New Kingdom Egypt, etc. Over time, these diverse groups amalgamate (and continue to do so), constantly refining and redefining their primordial and circumstantial traits, and shaping that into a collective memory, which Bloch-Smith also holds to. It may appear as a type of catch-all/grab bag, but I do think it is an honest attempt to make sense of the diversity of evidence. So, indeed, there likely would have been some regional skirmishes that may have made their way into the archaeological record, but by no means on the grand scale depicted in Joshua. Similarly, some of earliest (or to borrow from Dever, Proto-Israel) was also most definitely indigenous Canaanites, thus explaining the similarity in material culture in many Iron I highland sites.All that to say, no to your question about any period fitting the sites, but I do think there are proposals that do a good job of fitting the evidence in a responsible way.Let me know if you have questions.

  • Douglas Mangum

    James, The simple answer is no – the archaeology doesn’t fit the Joshua conquest account at all. I’m currently reading Bill Dever’s “Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from?” where he summarizes all the evidence from the sites. John’s right that there are new theories coming out that I think explain Israelite origins well, but the theories don’t fit with the Joshua account in the way that this post is indicating would be necessary. That’s why Bryant Wood, et al, have to work so hard to show how the evidence could fit (even when it doesn’t). I haven’t read Killebrew or Bloch-Smith but I would agree with a version of Israelite origins substantially similar to what John described.

  • John Anderson

    I would recommend the Bloch-Smith article. I can get the full bib if people are interested – but it was in JBL back in 2005 I think. Ann Killebrew’s volume is also worth having. I have learned much from them.Thanks for your comments, Doug.

  • Jordan Wilson

    Archeology is not an exact science. To say that we can tell what happened to place 3,000 + years ago is mistaken. It is just one person’s interpretation of what they think might have happened. No, I don’t believe the bible is inerrant, but I do believe it is closer to the historical truth than what all the revisionist are trying to make it out to be.

  • James F. McGrath

    Hi Bradley. This post was slightly shorter than I originally intended it to be (although it was intended to be brief), since I wrote it while at the public library on a computer on which I only had 15 minutes left of login time.My point was that the evidence is incompatible with inerrancy in any meaningful sense of that term. But that still leaves a range of possible degrees of historicity, from “much” to “none whatsoever”. Determining which is a matter of sifting the evidence, and often more than one interpretation of the evidence is possible. But (as I’ve increasingly emphasized to my students) that doesn’t mean that any interpretation of the evidence is possible.As for what I believe about the Bible, I believe that its authors in places set forth a vision of the good that is so high that even the Biblical authors themselves did not always live up to it. And I believe that, just because its authors were fallible human beings, that doesn’t mean that many of them did not have a life-transforming experience of that transcendent reality we (and they) refer to as God. Fallible human beings often have important things to say, and we should not demand perfection before we listen. But as Eric Reitan has emphasized in comments on another blog entry, when we come to believe that a text is inerrant, we use that as justification to stop listening to others that may have wise but fallible things to say, that we need to hear. And so I believe that the case for the Bible’s errancy, far from being opposed to a Christian reading thereof, can play an essential role in our coming to hear it for what it is: part of the ongoing dialogue that is Christianity, rather than the end of dialogue.Mike, whether that view is “high” enough is a subject on which many will differ. But one thing I’ve felt more and more strongly recently (and is one of the reasons I’ve been posting on the subjects I have) is this: it seems to me that a lot of us (myself included) prefer to debate the precise nature of the Bible’s inspiration/(in)fallibility/(in)errancy because discussing theology, history, and other subjects that are genuinely difficult, is still ultimately far less challenging than the challenge to sacrifice our lives for the sake of others. And so lately my sense of inadequacy as a Christian has nothing to do with my doctrinal precision, but my failure to sell all my CDs and use the money to feed some family that is starving.Let me mention an example brought up in Meyers’ book that I posted about recently. For those who regard doctrinal purity as the key to Christian identity, Albert Schweitzer was presumably an “apostate”. But if we regard responding to the demand to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow as the defining feature of a Christian, then he fits the “definition” far better than most of us. Schweitzer also provides evidence that our response to that challenge doesn’t depend on adhering to a doctrine of inerrancy. It depends on the same thing that it depended on for those who first heard it in the first century: the impact of that challenge, coming to us from a human voice and in human language, with no sign (the original point about the “sign of Jonah”) except the power of the challenge itself.

  • Douglas Mangum

    I wondered when someone would bring a version of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” to this discussion. It’s true, maybe we haven’t found the right locations, dug in the right places, etc. But how can we affirm on the one hand that we’ve found so many biblical locations and then explain away the fact that what we do know about them archaeologically is that they were uninhabited or not destroyed during the Late Bronze period that the Book of Joshua purports to describe. Gibeon is a prime example – prominent in Joshua’s narrative but lacking evidence of habitation until the 8th century BC. And it’s not likely a misidentification since 56 jar handles were found with the name “Gibeon” inscribed from the 8th-7th centuries BC (see Dever, Who were the early Israelites, pp 48-49.)Even looking at the text of Scripture alone, what do we do with the fact that Joshua 12 describes many cities taken by Israel that Judges 1 says were not taken?

  • Alan Lenzi

    I wrote my rant on inerrancy last year at about this time.

  • Mike K

    James, good response. Ultimately, for Christians the Word of God is not made book (as some see the Quran) but the Word is made flesh (John 1:1). I don’t remember Jesus separating the sheep and the goats based on their doctrine of Scripture :) And it further seems clear to me from some commenters how far we are from the truth that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The only thing I wonder, without being so naive as to think we can come to the Bible without presuppositions or traditions, if the canon is necessary to hold our own experiences and traditions accountable and that the canon can act as a check and balance when a church begins to abuse its authority (it does not have to be historically/scientifically factual to do that)? That the canon allows for a wide range of diverse Christian expressions but still marks off some boundaries to keep some distinctive group identity?

  • Mike K

    Oh, correction, I meant the angry commentators on a few of your other posts on inerrancy. Everyone who commented on this one seems to be interested in discussion instead of insults.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘Is there any single period of approximately a century during which we find all the relevant cities mentioned in Joshua to have been destroyed in something like the way the Book of Joshua indicates?’*All* of them?That is setting the bar very high, isn’t it?It would be like asking for evidence that *all* 12 disciples actually existed.No scholar thinks we can show that *all* 12 disciples actually existed, but nobody thinks that proves anything.

  • phil_style

    Mike Koke makes an interesting point.I think there’s a difference between viewing Christianity as a religion of the book (ala Islam – and please accept my apologies if I have incorrectly characterised Islam, I’m neither Islamic nor an expert on Islam), as opposed to the Bible being the book of the Religion.

  • James F. McGrath

    Mike, your point sounds rather like the argument of Unity and Diversity in the New Testament by Jimmy Dunn. I am sympathetic to that (not surprisingly). I also seem to recall Caird’s New Testament Theology envisaging a dialogue, in which we’re invited into a round-table conversation with the New Testament authors. I think one key reason why the Bible is valuable even (perhaps especially) to Christians non-inerrantists is that it keeps us in dialogue with our tradition. Those who affirm inerrancy sometimes claim to be maintaining the Bible without addition or subtraction, and can at times be blind to their own cultural influences and limitations being imposed in interpreting the text. But on the other end of the spectrum, it is easy to get so enamored with the progress that has been made in science and other areas, while we see the Biblical authors’ shortcomings in these areas very clearly, and so there too there is the danger of failing to see the shortcomings of our standpoint. Being in dialogue with voices from another time, place, language and culture can at times help make us aware of our standpoint and challenge us to catch a glimpse over and beyond it, standing on their shoulders, as it were.

  • Josh

    “…I believe that the case for the Bible’s errancy, far from being opposed to a Christian reading thereof, can play an essential role in our coming to hear it for what it is: part of the ongoing dialogue that is Christianity, rather than the end of dialogue.”.Has anyone (everyone?) here read Peter Enns “Inspiration and Incarnation”? I am in chapter 1 and am interested in how that book plays into this discussion. From what I can tell, it would seem to be in keeping with James’ vision of Christianity noted in his comment above.

  • John Hobbins

    There are two main ways of talking about Scripture as being full of truth, without error and without leading into into error:(1) As a description of what Scripture is in the moment that God speaks to us through it. On a classical view of God, that moment is by definition outside of our control. If such moments exist, they are obviously all-important. On this description, the teaching that Scripture is inerrant is a confession of faith. It is subject to comparison to other confessions of faith such as: the Bible is hogwash; it speaks about a God that does not exist; My God is an idea, an omega point which emerges from the process of evolution. (2) As a statement about presumed ways in which scripture is unlike any other human text in the sense that, for example, whenever the human authors had a paucity of sources at their disposal, God miraculously supplied them with all the knowledge they needed to accurately fill in the gaps.In theory, (2) might be true no less than (1), but I know of no evidence to suggest that it is.I’m responding to James in more depth on my blog.As for John Andersen’s recommendation of Liz Bloch-Smith and Ann Killebrew’s (different) forays into the subject matter of the settlement and conquest, great stuff! So is Dever’s work. Of course, we are nowhere near having achieved a synthesis of all the disparate data.

  • J. K. Gayle

    Now, which Joshua are we talking about here? The one all the various gospels and fragmented gospels quote actually never quotes the book of Joshua, does he? This Jesus is silent not only on the question of inerrancy of the scriptures but sometimes on much of the bible itself. Midrash rehash may be useful – unless we’re afraid of ancient methods of narrative, orality / literacy, and such these day. (And when I say “ancient methods” I’m not talking about our contemporary versions of aristotelian logic or anything. I am suggesting very interesting turns to historiography that feminists more recently have been using to recover the once male-only history of the tradition of rhetoric. A specific example is Cheryl Glenn’s Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance, which is not only a regendered retelling of a fuller account of history but is also a demonstration of ways to re-member histories. Feminist theologies, rightly, must count on errors in the Bible because of the erroneous histories around the text. Oops! Didn’t mean to say so much. But I’m awfully glad for your post, James!)

  • Steven Carr

    JAMES’Is there any single period of approximately a century during which we find all the relevant cities mentioned in Joshua to have been destroyed in something like the way the Book of Joshua indicates?’CARRI’m still intrigued to find out why this test should be applied.When it comes to the Old Testament, it seems we can doubt the historicity of any city mentioned in Joshua, unless evidence is found for *all*, for each and every one of the cities mentioned?Are sceptics allowed to doubt the historicity of any Gospel character unless evidence is found for *all* the characters named in the Gospel?Not even the most ardent Jesus-myther would ever ask for evidence for each and every Gospel character before accepting that any of them existed.So why would James think such a standard of evidence is the right one to ask for when evaluating Joshua?

  • James F. McGrath

    Good question, Steven. I think that the standard I propose is the appropriate/inevitable one if one wants to evaluate whether the Book of Joshua is inerrant or not. As I emphasized, it can still have information of historical value without being inerrant.

  • John Hobbins

    It might also be appropriate to develop a concept of inerrancy that takes the genres of the texts in question seriously. For example, if Jonah and Esther belong to the genre of satire (a reasonable enough hypothesis, and not at all out of line with the use to which they have been put in later Jewish tradition), what does it mean to say that Jonah and Esther are inerrant? It cannot but mean that the texts are flawless treatments of conflicts that Israel and God’s people however defined faces and continues to face. It cannot but mean that Jonah and Esther continue to be God’s word, a light onto our path and a lamp onto our feet. The book of Joshua has been and continues to be understood as flawless in the above senses by generations and generations of Jewish and Christian believers.That flawlessness is independent of the extent to which the book of Joshua was able to recapture in terms one would expect to find in contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous sources, details of events that occurred five centuries or more before the book, quite possibly, was written.I admit that I belong to a weird group of people – those who try to read ancient texts on their own terms – but I do find it aggravating that so many people on all sides of this debate apply concepts of error and truth to a text like Joshua that are inappropriate to its genre. One might at least preface one’s remarks by: if we choose to read the book of Joshua on our terms, not its own, it appears to get things terribly wrong. It’s fun to do this, because when we do so, fundamentalists are shown to be nit-wits.

  • Nathaniel

    James,I’m much more interested in historicity than in inerrancy; insofar as your post was intended as a bit of bait for fundamentalists, this comment doesn’t rise to the level of a nibble. That said, I think this comment of yours may reveal some overreading of the book of Joshua:But even if we grant him the benefit of the doubt, can we find a period of about 100 years during which all the cities said to have been destroyed in the Book of Joshua were in fact destroyed in something like the way that book claims they were?Joshua 10, in particular, describes quite a number of battles at cities where the opposing forces were conquered by the Israelites, their kings killed, etc. But for how many of the battles will a close reading of the text support the contention that the city itself was destroyed? Jericho and Ai and Hazor (11:11; but see v. 13), yes; but not Gibeon, Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Eglon, Hebron, Debir, or Gezer.What we should be looking for, then, is evidence — if it still exists — of the destruction of Jericho, Ai, and Hazor, and evidence of the habitation of the other cities. In this respect, both Albright and Finkelstein seem guilty of overreading the narrative of Joshua, Albright in the hopes of finding a string of destroyed cities to substantiate the narrative, Finkelstein with a view to discrediting the narrative by showing that the cities were not destroyed. But if the premise is false, both approaches are wrongheaded.Three principal factors make it risky to set much stock in the current state of the archaeology of Late Bronze Canaan. First, the identification of the sites is by no means always well established. The location of Jericho seems certain, but many of the others are conjectural. Ai, in particular, is in dispute. (Keep in mind that many of these cities were, by modern standards, shockingly small. The walls of Jericho enclosed perhaps one acre.)Second, in some places erosion has wiped out a significant amount of the information we would otherwise expect to find at the site. At Jericho, we have hardly anything after the Middle Bronze. If we accept a late date for the conquest of Canaan, Joshua’s Jericho is quite literally washed away.Third, most of the sites have barely been dug, and in some cases (e.g. at the proposed site of Makkedah) there are modern Arab villages and hence there is, practically speaking, no hope of doing a thorough dig in the forseeable future.Keeping these factors in mind, I don’t see why a date of about 1225-1125 for the conquest of Canaan, more or less along the lines of the book of Joshua, would be out of the question. Do you?

  • James F. McGrath

    Nathaniel, thanks for your comment. I didn’t mean to sound like I was assuming that every city that is described as having been captured in Joshua would have been destroyed – thanks for making sure that is clarified! If one is interested in merely making a case for historicity, one could simply suggest that the story of Ai was added by someone who knew the later ruin and assumed that it must have been part of the conquest. Of course, a fair bit would still remain to be sorted out about the date of the fall of Jericho’s walls and a number of other matters. The reference to Hazor being in non-Israelite hands in Judges 4 might also complicate things.But as someone who is primarily a New Testament scholar, I’ll leave it to some of the Hebrew Bible folks to address this further…

  • Nathaniel

    James,I didn’t mean to sound like I was assuming that every city that is described as having been captured in Joshua would have been destroyed – thanks for making sure that is clarified!Fair enough!For Ai, there are several hypotheses that would accommodate everything we know. (1) It could, as you say, have been added later by someone who assumed it must have been one of the conquered cities. (2) It could be that we have the wrong site currently; even a small site shift (From Et-Tell to Bethel? See Joshua 8:17), such as we know from Jericho and Lachish, would account for this. (3) It could be that we simply haven’t dug it enough. (4) It could be that the few Late Bronze remains we have simply reflect to the fact that it was not a heavily populated site. (See Joshua 7:3.)One must always keep phenomena (2) and (3) in mind, remembering cases like Dibon, where the digs disclosed Early Bronze settlements and Iron Age settlements but practically nothing from Middle and Late Bronze. This might have led one to suppose that references to Dibon in Numbers 21:30 and Joshua 13 were anachronisms. But one would be wrong; Ramesses II conquered Dibon just a few decades before the probable time of the events in Joshua and celebrated his victory in the sculptured reliefs of the temple at Luxor. I am as fond as the next fellow of inferences from archaeology. But when it is proposed to reject an ancient narrative written, at least prima facie, with historical intent, on the basis of a negative argument from archaeology, examples like Dibon should remind us to approach the inference with considerable caution.

  • Lawson Stone

    Found this site late, while doing research. Just a note Re. Magnum's comment above on Gibeon. El-Jib was inhabited from the Middle Bronze Age through the Persian era. Though LBA strata could not be confirmed, tombs clearly were used in the LBA and yielded LBA remains such as imported Cypriote ware, pilgrim flasks, jugs, and scarabs from Thutmose III. Some structures yielded cypriote base-ring ware, and LBA diagnostic. The early Iron city had a substantial wall. One should exercise caution making sweeping statements about Gibeon since the publication of the site was idiocyncratic at best and we likely will never see a final excavation report. One at least should read more than Dever.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment. Since Doug Mangum and others who comment here teach and research in this field, and certainly haven't "just read Dever" (even though Dever tends to be a reasonably balanced, moderate source, most of the time), would you have some other sources related to the excavation of Gibeon that you would recommend? Thanks!

  • Nathaniel

    [W]ould you have some other sources related to the excavation of Gibeon that you would recommend?Lawson probably has better sources than I, but for a start one could look at the article on Gibeon in E. Stern, et al., eds., The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2, pp. 511-14.

  • Lothar Lorraine

    You’re right it’s impossible to disprove the Exodus and conquest understood in a liberal way.

    But we can show that many verses of the Bible are completely at odds with archeology.

    However I don’t think that a small Exodus without a violent conquest is off the table.